Flanders (Continued). Part 3

LE TREPORT, 16 October, 1917

Being in bed all day with nothing to do, I might describe that wonderful canal-bank at Ypres I mentioned some time ago, and also our march to Passchendaele, thus finishing the whole matter at once when memory is fresh. That march from Vlamertinghe to Ypres at night must remain the most romantic and exciting incident of my life, not on account of bursting shells or even danger in its slightest form, but through the uncertain nature of our road, and the warnings we received as to spies. My duty was to link up companies, our company being behind “C”. Whenever the men in front diverged from the straight track, I had to wait behind and tell the following which way they had taken. With the night pitch-black and a bewildering procession of G.S. wagons, transport, guns, and ammunition-carts all over the landscape, such a procedure was by no means a joke. If the company got lost through me, there would be a hot time in store : no reward, of course, if I was successful,

At sunset the battalion set out, each company with its set of pipers and drummers. The sky, from being a wonderful mauve-purple of great brilliancy where white balloons hung ghostlike and smoke from distant shells hovered mysteriously dim, grew dark almost at once ; trees crept back into shadow, and the road, from a golden continuity, sunk into nothing. No outline lay on anything – ruins, hedges, fields, ditches, disappearing in an intense darkness.  Then my troubles began. First of all, my company got muddled up behind two wagons, each of which had fallen into the ditch on either side of the road. The distance between the two companies grew alarmingly great, and I had almost despaired when the confusion ceased and all was right again. Then I spent some time telling an over-inquisitive officer my duties did not lie in telling which battalion I belonged to and where it was going, that he had better wait until the Adjutant arrived and ask him, We had been warned so earnestly about spies, and that this attack of the division must remain absolutely unknown even to our own army that I was afraid to say a word. When I left him and hurried on, I plumped into a cross-roads with no sign of any one to direct us anywhere at random I asked an artilleryman where the company in front had gone, and with relief learned the road. There, two hundred yards farther, I found it halted behind a lumbering wagon.  The difficulty now lay in keeping the companies apart.

That difficulty surmounted, off we went again. An engineer walked along with me for some distance and at the last gave me a packet of biscuits, with the cry of “Cheery-o, good luck on Thursday”.  He belonged to our division and knew when the attack was coming off. I never felt so glad in all my life when our Quartermaster hailed me and took over duty as guide. Then, stumbling down a rutty road lined with trees, lights glinting at intervals, we came to a bridge over a dull-gleaming water, and got into dug-outs for the night.

(Written in the train going to Le Havre), 18 October, 1917

The most poignant recollection of the canal bank lies in a picture I saw early in the morning of the next day. After stumbling up a stair of planks, we got on the left bank itself and dropped into a deep trench that seemed to twist about in a most tantalising fashion. At last we struck a low passage and came to rest in a chamber abutting on it, made of heavy corrugated-iron bent over to touch the ground on each side. Within this space hung four wire-beds fastened with string : I got into the frailest, and no one can quite imagine the miserable time I had all night wondering when I would drop on the man beneath as one strand parted after another.

In a grey dawn I decided to explore a little farther, and went down the passage, still half-asleep and shivering with cold. A track of light to the left showed where the entrance lay, and I was going joyfully towards it when a strange figure, silhouetted in the opening, made me sick and sent me hurriedly back to where I came. It was a man astride across the light, fallen on his face with both legs projecting. He had been there for years, for the skin stretched black over sharp bones, and the tunic, faded like showed blood-stains with weather, blotches on old parchment. In terror he had essayed to escape a shell, but the shell had got him first. I have seen some dreadful sights, but none penetrated so deeply as that.  Remember it was early morn, the time when the body and mind are more open to impression, more easily affected by the unforeseen, and that I had spent a sleepless night fighting against straining nerves. The sight of that poor fellow sent a shrinking into my very soul ; heart, blood, flesh, all the generous vitalities were shrivelled up, and a vague, wild, barren terror took their place. I could not think : the ostrich instinct was on me and I would gladly have hidden anywhere to escape it.

That quality of horror pervades the canal bank there must have been dreadful fighting there at one time, for both sides of the canal, high banks just raised like mounds above the surrounding country, are still strewn with men dead years ago and burnt up like mummies by the weather. On the enemy side of the bank stretch miles of water-logged shell-holes and craters, where men lie thickly, obscene masses of decay, shapeless and distorted, some bunched up, others with legs or arms rising blackly above the mud, others buried to the head with horrible faces on a level with the ground. The atmosphere dwells heavy, and a slight but penetrating smell of decay spreads over everything ; the water of the canal itself rolls along sluggishly as if weighted with blood. The reeds cluster more rankly and thickly, the grass twists more intricately, and nature has a strong growth, unhealthy in rottenness. In the distance rise the tower and spire of Ypres as peaceful in the purple shimmer as a village at home not a shell bursts anywhere for a moment ; the clouds rest in misty flocks on the ridge, and in finely graded perspective, the grey and green monotony of shell-holes disappears into the full-bosomed sky. Even Belgium has its beauty, and the spirit, dwelling only on it, lays aside all thought of death, content to rest awhile in vision.

I was perched on the bank beneath a gaunt tree, thinking of nothing at all, only trying to find points of comparison between Morris’s description of the “Dry Tree”  in the Well at the World’s End,  and this in front of me, when Johnson asked me to look at the afterglow effect on a row of tall trees reflected in the water. The sky gleamed and glinted living gold, and the canal repeated its glory, touching it softly in the shadow with azure : against them the gaunt, leafless trees told startlingly, pure black against the flaming colour tossed from distant ridge to ridge and their reflections interrupted by long bars of cool twilight held in water, stretched darkly and mysteriously to the tall reeds where a bare-chested artilleryman was washing shirt and tunic. I had never looked at this corner before : I was so busy looking towards Ypres. But of all the perfect Corotesque pictures I have glimpsed in France, this one transcended all. There dwelt haunting majesty about it as if it were built on dreams and might fade away at a touch. Nothing substantial, yet nothing tenuous, the fine material for a glorious conception. After all, it was worthwhile, even in Belgium, to have spent a minute before such a strange beauty, to have fatigue crowned a moment of such glory. Everyone who has seen that row of trees must have felt like that. I did, at any rate, and my companion. The only image I could satisfy my mood in reference to this beauty and horror of the canal bank was of a gaily-painted snake whose bite was poison.